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Restaurants & Bars 17

Sakae (Burlingame) updater -- superlative sushi

Sushi Monster | Mar 24, 200606:02 PM

A caveat: Since I'm not able to completely search the Chowhound San Francisco board for each and every comment on this restaurant, I'm not sure what new information I can contribute to the ongoing discussion. Let's start with the givens:

Sakae, at 240 Park Road in downtown Burlingame, is almost universally acclaimed as the Mac Daddy of all high-end sushi restaurants in the region. On the Peninsula, its only peers may be Sam's in San Mateo and Kaygetsu in Menlo Park – two other high-end operations with very different styles and priorities. While each of the three is quality-obsessed and each has its acolytes, Sakae is the smallest and most traditional of the elite set. Like Kaygetsu, it is also expensive to the point of legend.

At a relaxed lunch today, I found these generalizations to all be true. I'm no sushi expert, just an interested student. Based on everything I've experienced at nearly 100 sushi bars from Vancouver to Los Angeles, this might just be the ultimate.

Let me cut to the box score: For two people, 20 plates (2 nigiri pieces each) of the finest fresh fish on the planet ran $160, or on average $8 per plate. (That's double the per-plate average for the Peninsula.) Total for lunch for two, with one $20 sake flight sampler and tip was $226.

On the question of value, I can only say I'll be remembering this intensely satisfying and unique experience fondly for a long, long time to come. What price do you put on your memories? I'm sure the guy who bought the $360 bottle of Chateau Montelena or the lady who dropped $1000+ for dinner for four at Per Se will understand. To each his own obsession.

How did lunch get to be $113 per person? Really – I kid you not, it wasn't the sake. The single tasting flight (three small glasses) was split with my partner, Sushi Monster Sr., who'd driven down from Napa to tag-team me on this special assignment. Although there are many sakes at Sakae that run more than $100 a bottle, the sake was just the capper *after* we'd finished a devastatingly delicious sushi feast. $20 for three special glasses isn't out of line with what we'd expect at any winebar in the area.

No, the real damage came because I told Sushi Monster Sr. going in "We need to show some discipline here on what we order off the white board. That stuff is all FedEx'd from Tsukiji and the other main Tokyo fish market. So it's like we're essentially paying for the trans-Pacific first-class ticket for a giant bluefin tuna." That was the plan. Then we seated ourselves at the bar and immediately lost all control.

The daily white board at Sakae, along with the specials menu at Sam's, is legendary for carrying rare and special offerings almost never seen outside Japan. We didn't have anything *terribly exotic* – no Marinated Dog's Bollocks in Special Tempura Batter with Seasonal Shitake Remoulade for us, hahaha. But we did mow down the best of the board from top to bottom with singleminded zeal.

Everything – all *20* nigiri plates (I still can't believe we really did that...) were outstanding. Not a ho-hum or mediocre morsel to be had anywhere. So to spare you the redundant and non-informative "Itwasgreat!Itwasgreat!Itwasgreat!" I'll just run down the highlights off the white board:

The Hokkaido scallops. Wow. Momentarily rendered sightless and mute by orgasmic flavor. Or maybe that was the (real) wasabe, rather than the standard horseradish variety.

The kampachi (best-grade yellowtail). Like the scallops, we doubled back for seconds on this one. Never had any yellowtail anywhere with this melt-in-your-mouth texture.

The akami (bluefin tuna). The bluefin toro (from Spain via Tokyo) came in three grades. Super-premium (o-toro) at $21 for two pieces. Medium-fatty at $18. And akami, at a more reasonable $8. Jun-san insisted we try one piece raw and the other with the 24-hour marinade. I preferred the fresh.

The ocean trout (not on the whiteboard or the menu, I had to ask) was bright orange, exploding with flavor.

Aside from those greatest hits, the other most memorable items off the whiteboard: special seki aji (Spanish mackerel), sayori (halfbeak), rarely seen in these parts, with a very delicate flavor. Striped Jack. And mutsu (Japanese bluefish), very sweet and silky.

Aside from the quality of the fish, the real special value here came from the dialogue with Jun-san, one of the most erudite, engaged and accessible itamae I've encountered. Sushi Monster Sr. and I found ourselves geeking out with him over esoteric topics ranging from the seasonal variations in fat content in certain fish to the effect that water temperatures in a certain trench off the Japanese coast has on plankton. A real lesson. And a real pleasure. We both left feeling that the time we spent with Jun-san was at least as important as the fish he served us.

Bottom line: It's the real deal. Any more real and you'd probably have to factor in the hassles of jetlag, clearing customs, exchanging currency, etc. And who needs that when all you really want is lunch?

Sushi Monster

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